Is warrantless GPS tracking legal?
We asked this question back in November, and on Monday, we were given an official answer. Sort of.
The Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that secretly placing a GPS tracking device on a suspect's vehicle is a "search" under the 4th Amendment. And if police want to carry on this type of search for an extended period of time, it's advisable they get a warrant.
United States v. Jones is admittedly a very narrow ruling. The Court was presented with the case of Antoine Jones, a suspected drug trafficker. His vehicle was subjected to nonstop warrantless GPS tracking for 28 days.
The entire court concluded that this type of GPS tracking is subject to the 4th Amendment. However, the justices were not in agreement as to when such a search requires a warrant.
Some justices believe that long-term GPS tracking cannot be carried out without a warrant. To do so would unreasonably infringe upon a person's right to privacy. Others indicated that there may be some situations where warrantless GPS tracking does not violate the Constitution.
This would seem to include short instances of tracking, and when persons are suspected of "extraordinary offenses."
So, what does this all mean?
At its most basic level, the ruling indicates that law enforcement does not have an unfettered right to track a suspect's vehicle with a GPS device. The police tactic is subject to the 4th Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches.
Therefore, unless it is reasonable, warrantless GPS tracking is illegal.